(INTERVIEW) A Successful Year for Entrepreneur Cynthia Liu
With BlogHer Entrepreneurs '12 right around the corner, I thought it would be a great idea to revisit an entrepreneur we spoke with almost one year ago. Cynthia Liu started off wanting to help people understand education cuts in California, but saw a greater need. She went on to win the HTC Innovator Award at BlogHer '11 and has had a whirlwind year of success. What better than a success story right before our conference?
I asked Cynthia a few questions about her busy (and successful!) year as well as some questions that we know entrepreneurs-in-waiting want to know. I know you'll come away from this interview inspired and encouraged!
You've been busy since we last talked to you. Can you tell me what you've been doing in the last year?
Since I won the HTC/BlogHer.com Innovator Award in August, 2011, I’ve launched the K12NN searchable/commentable Elementary and Secondary Education Act with supplemental information. Why is teach to the test so prevalent? See Title I of ESEA, commonly known as No Child Left Behind, and the Adequate Yearly Progress provision. What’s happening to the re-authorization of ESEA President Obama called for several times in 2011? We’re in a twilight zone where previous Congresses passed bipartisan legislation but in this Congress, Republicans in the House have decided to issue their own bill despite an insistence on bipartisanship in the Senate. It doesn’t look like we’ll get anywhere until after the November elections with the much-needed re-authorization of ESEA, so keep an eye out for updates this winter.
We also held an in-person afternoon workshop on school funding in California. Last year, we featured over 7 podcasts with movers and shakers among public education advocates. Right now we’re in the middle of revamping our map tool to show current information.
I was really pleased we successfully petitioned our governor to sign an important education bill into law in our state.
It’s been a lot of experimentation with online and offline organizing, with some great wins.
Speaking as an entrepreneur, can you give our readers a bit of insight how you went from idea to award winning organization?
I was yearning for a certain kind of education news – smart data visualizations that could help me accurately digest big chunks of incomprehensible education facts and figures. Side-by-side comparisons of ballot initiatives that are supposed to help fund California’s schools, but were instead talked about in a vacuum, as if they had no impact on the state budget in its entirety. Or local news that was positive and useable…does the neighboring school district have a great program that you want to implement in yours? What schools are experimenting successfully with innovation? Stuff the gloom and doom mainstream news tends not to see through its lens of crisis and failure.
So basically I created the website I myself wanted and felt there was a need for.
As for the award-winning part, I really want to give kudos to my non-profit partners, Parents for Great Education, and the California Budget Project. I’ve really enjoyed working with them and I don’t know how common it is for startup businesses to do that, but because we’re mission-driven and so far have no revenue, we might as well be a not-for-profit (ha!). These are mutually beneficial partnerships.
I have to give huge thanks also to BlogHer for partnering with HTC to offer the Innovator Award. I was thrilled to win! You all provided wonderful mentoring at BlogHer BET11 (renamed this year, BlogHer Entrepreneurs '12, which I’m also attending) and it helped me articulate and refine K12NN from top to bottom.
Finally, the great folks at NewU/Unity created the 2011 Fellows Program, and that was another great opportunity to network with potential collaborators who are all going through similar struggles together.
As I told readers above, you recently won a $10,000 grant from New U, a special entrepreneurial journalism program sponsored by UNITY, the umbrella organization of journalists of color. Congrats again! What does this mean for your organization?
It’s huge validation of what we’re up to, which I’m really grateful for. The program founder, Doug Mitchell, and Alli Joseph, who helps him run it, are far-sighted, encouraging go-getters who were inspired to create an incubator for journalists of color so they’d be part of the founding movement to re-imagine journalism in the age of Twitter. It was a really wonderful program and I got lots of solid advice from folks who are funding and re-shaping digital media. Plus, when I’m ready to hire freelance journos, they can hook me up!
Through UNITY I met my mentor, who is brilliant and generous and an expert in his field. He really took an interest in K12NN.
Speaking of grants, can you let our entrepreneurial minded readers in on some grant application information? What do you apply to and how many? Did you hire a grant writer? And so on -- I know that these are the things everyone wants to know!
I don’t have a grant writer. I write all my own grants. (I went to graduate school and about 40% of graduate school is securing grants and fellowships.) I’ve written tons of grant proposals and I’m about to submit another. It’s time-consuming, but it’s really a lucky thing that venture capital is not the sole source of possible funding.
On my own I’ve applied to the McCormick Women’s New Media Entrepreneurship grant, the NewU, and the Knight News Challenge, and I have some proposals I’m working on with partner organizations.
You've had a lot of success in the past year, but I'm sure at times it was hard won. What was your toughest battle that you overcame this year?
My toughest battle was probably lacking a partner with a tech background…that, and trying to stay awake for another 5 hours of work at night after my kid went to sleep and I was really Zzzzzzzzzzzzz…. Oh wait, what? Right, staying awake, because my Hermione Granger Time-Turner is broken and I’m limited to 24 hours a day.
Sleep deprivation, a woeful lack of my own geekery skills, and being spread too thin. So what else is new, women bloggers who are moms?
Can you give some words of inspiration to those just starting out -- or trying to overcome their own battle?
If you fill a need, either your own or someone else’s, you’ll probably have discovered something you can provide in a distinctive way.
Have or find partners.
Compare notes with people on a path parallel to yours.
Seek out mentors.
Try to do your own web development as much as possible if you have a web-based business.
Be prepared to get by on passion for a loooong time.
Tape yourself pitching then force yourself to watch. It’s excruciating, but useful.
I told you it would be inspiring. Track down Cynthia at BlogHer Entrepreneurs '12 next week and pick her brain a bit!
[Do you want to start something? Whether your goal is to strike out on your own with a brilliant idea, or to bring an entrepreneurial approach to innovation within a company, you should attend BlogHer Entrepreneurs '12 -- register now!]